No matter how long you have been doing improv, there will still come a time when are you in the middle of a scene and you have no idea what's going on.
This is awesome.
I remember a teaching example someone gave me long ago. Two beginning improvisors are on stage. One sees a cave. The cave is big. The cave is dark. Improvisor One says, "Let's go in the cave."
Do they go inside?
Chances are, the second improvisor will say “No”.
No way. We can’t go in there.
I’m afraid of the dark.
We have no torches.
There could be an animal in there!
It's normal to disagree.
Much of the training for new improvisors is teaching them how to say YES because NO is the default thing that wants to pop out of our mouths. Our brains want to keep things safe. Categorized. Defined. No, we are not going in the cave.
I have no idea what's in there.
But then you become a more seasoned improviser. You know to go in the cave. You know to open the bottle. You know to pour the contents of the bottle in your mouth. You know how to say YES. YES makes the scene move forward. YES makes your scene partner look good.
Take action. Do that thing.
Unless it becomes a crutch.
Like when you find yourself in a scene and the characters are getting into some undefined relationship territory. The emotions are vibrating up and down like a butterfly dance, back and forth between the players. Things were clear between these characters but now they are not. Who holds the power now? Where is this going?
At that moment, when it's unclear and the wind whistles all around you as you leap between sides do you announce a cave to explore? Do you smash open a bottle? Do you look for some action to draw focus from the emotions?
This feels uncomfortable! Look! Snake!
Or do you embrace the awkward?
Because it IS awkward. It's awkward to sift through a tangled relationship. It's a vulnerable place to be.
But if you let it be the awkward that it is, the audience will LOVE IT.
The trick is to embrace it as an improvisor. To learn to look forward to it like someone at the gym feeling their muscles work. Oh wow, where are we? I have no idea what is going on here. BUT SOMETHING WONDERFUL IS COMING.
If you trust this process, the audience will go through the journey with you, often at the edge of their seat.
But it takes courage.
It takes courage to not swipe a scene at the first sign of a stall.
It takes courage to lean IN to a relationship that is struggling on stage.
It takes courage to BREATHE during a group scene that seems like chaos as it finds its footing.
It takes courage. Trust. Belief. Anticipation. Delight. You name it.
It takes courage to go through the take-apart.
In every great story there is the unraveling. The part where it all seems to be going wrong and we have no idea how it’s going to end up right again. But when it does—when the hero saves the day, or like in movie The Sixth Sense the true reality is revealed—it has such an impact the audience gasps.
When we let a relationship go through a complete journey we give ourselves and the audience a HUGE CATHARTIC PAYOFF.
Of course, in a perfect world, we would stand on stage in complete knowing of the characters, the arc, the plot, and the ending. Right?
Nah, only if we are doing a play. :)
In improv, isn't it the thrill of the unknown that exhilarates us? The unfolding? The conclusion even WE didn’t see coming?
And sometimes in the best long form (even if the audience doesn’t see it but we feel it on stage) there is an awkward time. What we do with that time matters. Do we try to throw a blanket it on it and put it out like a fire? Or do we peer into it and see what gifts it has to bring, knowing that it’s the start of something amazing?
An egg about to hatch.
A gift about to be sprung wide open.
A relationship status shift.
A fun time working things out with our fellow improvisor making things up ON THE SPOT.
How we think about that awkward time makes all the difference because with practice, it doesn't feel awkward anymore.
It feels like possibility.
It occurred to me recently that we have different perspectives that have to merge, blend, or play well together if we want to be incredible improvisors. I'm not sure what else to call them so bear with my just-made-up descriptions so I can get these concepts down before the kids find me. :)
1. Real Life You
This is the you that walks into class or practice. The you that may be stressed about work or preoccupied with life. This you might be tired, wired, looking forward to something in the future or dreading the same. This is the "you" we try to shift out of when we do warm-ups into...
2. Improvisor You
Improvisor you is the you that is actively applying and working towards the improv principles of yes-and, teamwork, serving the story, making eye contact, having fun, and being supportive. It's the you that tries to accept ideas from the left-brain while also telling it to hit the backseat while we let the preset moment get bigger in our windshield and fill up our vision with what is happening RIGHT NOW.
3. Your Character
You're in a scene. It's a beach scene. You are Marge, the older, retired first-ever female winner of the surf competition at Awesome Beach. You are cranky and these kids... you have your eye on them.
Now Marge is going to make choices you might not make. Me? I'm not a "get off my lawn" type of person but she is and she's not afraid to tell you. Loudly. With hand waving.
Making these three aspects of you work is what makes improv work.
Can you get out of your real life brain and relax?
I know when I can't let go of life I'm terrible at improv. I can't focus and I don't hear offers much less make coherent responses that move the story forward. If you haven't been able to let go of that office argument be easy on yourself if your improv is suffering. You haven't forgotten everything you've learned, you just aren't in the zone. But you can get back to it. It's still there waiting for you.
Are you being a clear and earnest improvisor You?
You're on stage or in class or practice and your character needs to wrestle the pogo stick away from the neighbor kid before Dad sees you've taken his prized childhood possession out of his man cave. Are you making eye contact with your fellow improvisor to see if they understand your intentions? Are you adjusting your physical movements (maybe even going into slo-mo) so that they are able to yes-and your pogo stick snatching offer clearly and safely? Maybe they give it to you. Maybe you end up wrestling for it. When your improvisor self is strong, turned on, and clear in you then you are clearer with your fellow improvisors as well and you can make more dramatic choices on stage because you are working together.
Many improvisors don't access this side of themselves on stage or in practice enough. Perhaps because they don't want to appear not to know what they are doing in the audience's eyes or they don't want to end up driving the scene. But the audience sees EVERYTHING. With the perceptive of sitting back looking at the full stage or practice area, and the ease of not having to be "on" they get it. AND THEY LOVE IT. They love watching you try to put it all together. It's fun. And if they don't see you put it together because you are so subtle about it or so in the flow with your fellow improvisor it's like you two share the same brain THE AUDIENCE LOVES IT. That's magic right there.
So, either way you win.
Do you know your character?
When I studied the playwright Edward Albee in grad school something about him blew my mind. He would sometimes spend a year developing his characters. He would go window shopping and imagine what they would buy or wear. On and on until, by the time he sat down to write his plays, all he had to do was put his characters in the same room and the play would write itself.
When you know your character, you know how they feel about things. Character's feelings are what drive the action.
"Marge! That kid is stealing your surfboard!" OUTRAGE. I know that Marge would not stand for that nor would she call for help when she can darn well take care of it herself...
Let's Put It All Together Now
Knowing about these three aspects can help you better identify why things go right in a scene or why they went wrong. (Ok, ok, there is no "wrong" but you know what I mean.)
If you haven't gotten out of real life brain...
If you aren't being a clear improvisor self with your fellow improvisors...
If you don't know your character....
But then imagine when you DO.
When you have shifted out of real life brain into amazing improvisor self who is clear and supportive and takes the time and eye-contact to be obvious when needed coupled with clear, defined characters who then have STRONG emotional choices because their reaction to things are obvious to you...
...YOU HAVE REACHED IMPROV AWESOME.